Two or more forms (or atomic configurations) of a given element that have identical atomic numbers (the same number of protons in their nuclei) and the same or very similar chemical properties but different atomic masses (different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei) and distinct physical properties. Thus, carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14 are isotopes of the element carbon, and the numbers denote the approximate atomic masses. Among their distinct physical properties, some isotopes (known as radioisotopes) are radioactive because their nuclei emit radiation as they strive toward a more stable nuclear configuration. For example, carbon-12 and carbon-13 are stable, but carbon-14 is unstable and radioactive.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Tuesday, March 09, 2021